What does the phrase "those who are baptized for the dead" mean in 1 Corinthians 15:29 (NIV)?
I wish I could tell you! Several factors make it difficult to interpret this text. First, the text is very brief and Paul doesn’t elaborate; second, there’s no other reference to this practice in the rest of the New Testament; and third, it seems to suggest what is incompatible with what Paul says about baptism elsewhere.
Consequently there’s an array of contradictory interpretations among biblical expositors; one commentator lists about 40 possible interpretations. Such variety means that it is difficult to give an explanation that is final or conclusive. Whatever Paul said was of particular value only to the Corinthians.
Nevertheless, let me discuss two interpretations that seem to be among the most promising ones.
1. Contextual Considerations: We should always begin with the study of the context. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul deals with the reality of Christ’s resurrection in order to reaffirm the Christian teaching of the resurrection of the dead. The surrounding verses discuss the implications of denying the resurrection.
For instance, Paul argues that if there’s no resurrection from the dead, then risking his life for preaching the gospel is foolish (verse 30). If there is no resurrection, we should simply enjoy the present: "Let us eat and drink" (verse 32, NIV). If there is no resurrection, "What will those do who are baptized for the dead?" The other consequences are relatively easy to grasp, but not the last one.
2. Vicarious Baptism: One of the most common interpretations is that Paul is referring to vicarious baptism; that is, someone being baptized for a person who died before being baptized (possibly a Christian, Paul does not say) to ensure salvation. According to this interpretation, Paul is not supporting or condemning the practice but simply using it to demonstrate the inconsistency of those who deny the resurrection of the dead and at the same time are being baptized or allowing people to be baptized for the dead.
This view sounds logical, but it’s far from certain. First, there’s no evidence that vicarious baptism was practiced during the Apostolic Age, although we know that it became common among some groups of Christian heretics in later centuries, perhaps prompted by their reading of this particular text. Second, it implies that baptism is an indispensable condition of salvation, an idea that does not seem to be part of Paul’s baptismal theology. Third, since baptism requires act of faith and the dead cannot do that, Paul could have hardly condoned or ignored such a superstitious practice. These arguments are based on historical information as well as on an understanding of Paul’s theology that seems to exclude that particular interpretation.
3. New Converts: Another possibility, supported by a number of interpreters, is that the phrase "those who are baptized for the dead" refers to new converts who, after the death of a Christian relative or friend, are moved to become Christians in order to join them at the resurrection. This suggestion is based on the fact that the Greek preposition hyper, "for," can be translated for the sake of," which does not carry a vicarious connotation. "For the sake of" would then mean, "having in mind the interest of the dead," that is to say, satisfying the desire of Christians who now have died to see their relatives become Christians. Because of that concern those individuals are baptized for the dead.
This interpretation is linguistically possible and is consistent with, or at least does not contradict, the theology of baptism we find in the New Testament. Furthermore, it fits the question: "What will those do who are baptized for the dead?" Will they abandon the Christian faith now that they are being taught that there is no resurrection of the dead?
The way Paul expresses his idea seems cumbersome and unclear. It would’ve been better to say, "those who believe for the sake of the dead" rather than "those who are baptized . . ." It is difficult to live with uncertainties, but in this case the interpreter has to acknowledge passages that for the time being are not fully understood.
Feeling frustrated? . . . humbled? . . . Good!